Sunday, August 13, 2000
License plates were once so simple: sheets of numbers that distinguished one vehicle from others, a bureaucratic tool that helped police pursue wrongdoers.
Today they're a riot of color and good cheer, festooned with slogans and pictures hawking a place, a cause, a point of view. No staid, black-lettered stuff for us, not like those dreary Europeans.
We're the "Greatest Snow on Earth" (Utah), we've got "10,000 Lakes" (Minnesota), ours is a "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico) and we're not just the "Keystone State," we're also www.state.pa.us.
Having their say
In Washington, if the locals have their way, plates in the nation's capital will proclaim it is subject to "Taxation Without Representation" ï¿½ an in-your-face message intended to highlight the District of Columbia's subservient political status.
License plates, in other words, are no longer just about identification; they're about who we are.
"It becomes part of something that people own, and it becomes a statement they make," said Sherryl Hobbs Newman, director of Washington's Department of Motor Vehicles. "It's a very public way of exhibiting what your feelings are. It's a pride of one state or, in our case, one city, or just getting a message across."
Redesigns inspire contests, campaigns and even hate mail. Tags have become matters of fierce pride in many places, prompting raging debates or regional feuds any time a governor or legislator proposes a new one. Most states now have a slogan, a scene or both on their standard plates.
In Illinois, more than 230,000 votes were cast last year in a contest for a new plate.
The winner retains the "Land of Lincoln" moniker but features a new, penny-like profile of the Great Emancipator.
Next door in Wisconsin, thousands of vehicle owners deluged motor vehicle officials with complaints about a proposal that would have given "America's Dairyland" plates a yellow and black color scheme, prompting officials to choose a different version instead.
Indiana wrote into law a mandatory change of design and slogan every five years. It used to be every three, which means that in the past 18 years there have been six slogans, including "Hoosier State" and "Hoosier Hospitality" and "Amber Waves of Grain," which urbanites considered too rural.
And then there was "Wander Indiana," which was quickly scrapped after neighboring Michigan erected billboards imploring drivers to "Stop Wandering Indiana." Another changeover is scheduled for 2002.
Previous efforts have sparked many nasty letters and calls to Alvin Hayes, the motor vehicle bureau's public affairs director.
"There have been some really acerbic ones. We learned early on how much meaning people put into their license plates," Hayes said.
Meaning is precisely what Sarah Shapiro had in mind in March when she suggested Washington replace "Celebrate & Discover" with "Taxation Without Representation."
It would alert visitors to the unique political status of the capital, where residents pay federal taxes but have no vote in Congress, Shapiro argued.
Her proposed slogan, however, violates an unwritten rule of license plate boosterism: Never go negative. Be happy. "Vacationland," says Maine. "Wild, Wonderful," says West Virginia. "Famous Potatoes," say the plainspoken folks in Idaho.
"They're usually pretty innocent," said Thomson Murray, who publishes "The Official License Plate Book." "They usually don't take a swipe at Congress."
The District's swipe has prompted some grumbling. "I think they should pride themselves on being the nation's capital city and have a positive slogan that would be more welcoming," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who chairs the Senate's District of Columbia subcommittee.
But the idea quickly caught fire among residents, lauded by the mayor and the city council as an easy way to champion home rule; the administration plans to have the slogan on plates by November. Officials expect to nearly double their annual output of 70,000 tags.
The District wouldn't be the first government to come under fire for controversial plates. Nearly a quarter century ago, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of a New Hampshire couple to cover up "Live Free or Die," which has adorned that state's plates since the 1960s. Abortion-related slogans on specialty plates have also stoked controversy, most recently in Florida.
Fur is flying
More common are spats over less-serious matters. Consider the Wright brothers and the two states fighting over them: Ohio, where the Wrights were born and did much of their research, and North Carolina, where they achieved the first sustained, heavier-than-air flight, at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
For nearly two decades, North Carolina has featured "First in Flight" on its plates, which it credits with boosting visits to the Kitty Hawk Museum.
Ohioans have complained that giving North Carolina credit for the Wright brothers is, a state official said, "like giving the moon credit for Neil Armstrong." Ohio ditched "The Heart of It All" in 1998 and put "Birthplace of Aviation" on its vehicle tags. The two states are now arguing about which should use the Wrights on commemorative quarters.
Such fervor comes as no surprise to Chris Welsh at 3M, the company that provides much of the reflective sheeting and other technology that has allowed colorful renderings of airplanes and whales and silos to appear on auto tags.
There were earlier attempts at graphics ï¿½ Idaho plates had a big brown spud as early as 1926 ï¿½ but 3M broadened the possibilities in the 1970s.
Welsh said about 40 states now use the company's sheeting and machinery to affix slogans or scenes to various kinds of plates. (Most of the labor is indeed performed by prison inmates, including those in New Hampshire stamping out "Live Free or Die.")
"There are contests, newspapers run public opinion polls ï¿½ we've seen it all," said Welsh. "There continues to be a lot of fascination with license plates. You're putting a traveling billboard on every vehicle."
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, hoping to capitalize on high-tech chic, decided to make his state the first to put its Web address on license plates. Since the new ones were issued in September, monthly hits on the Pennsylvania government's Web site have quadrupled to more than 100 million.